Yesterday marked my fourth return return to this man’s house. He promised me three planks of wood cut to size and 18 nails. Instead, each time I returned, I found myself listening to a rambling assortment of excuses as flimsy as an old chitenje. Through his broken English, he’d tell me that returning another day was better. By yesterday afternoon, I was pissed. Sweaty, dusty and exhausted from a long bike ride to Salima that morning, I arrived at his house in a contentious mood.
“Are you ready to learn?” He asked in Chichewa. Before I could process his words and produce a response, he pointed towards a dilapitated toolbox and gestured for a saw. As I handed him the tool, I realized that my planks were sitting on his work bench. Uncut. My throat tightening as I felt my frustration grow. They were not even marked with the measurements that I had described days earlier. What had kept him so busy that he couldn’t make a few simple cuts? My stomach bluntly reminded me that I hadn’t ate lunch and all I wanted was to be back in my house with my planks, finally done with this man.
Almost three hours later, I left Malecki’s home with a full stomach, a new friend, and a better understanding and appreciation of a certain aspect of Malawian culture. I ascertained through a mixture of English and Chichewa that instead of solely selling me the planks, Malecki had wanted to help me build my shelves. He didn’t want to just pass off three raw planks, but wished to help me create three uniformly cut, planed and in his words, “beautiful” pieces of wood. Malecki taught me how to cut with a saw, use a “plank knife” to chip away unevenness, and smooth the wood with a plane. He also wanted to add an element of design to the shelves and help me put it all together, but I insisted that he had done enough.
After we finished our work, he eagerly invited me into his modest home for a meal of nsima and beans. It was in these walls, with his youngest child on his lap, that Malecki told me about his life. Unlike most Malawians, Malecki completed both primary and secondary school- a seemingly unattainable achievement for most youth here. (Only 11% of children attend secondary school, let alone finish). Malecki then expounded on his passion for carpentry which was evident in the way in which he had moved around his workshop, giving attention to minor details in the wood. He had attended carpentry school in the capital but ultimately resigned to return to Maganga in order to support his parents. “My family is poor. And now I am a poor man too,” he told me. Although he smiled when he said this, his eyes seemed to be full of lament, possibly considering what his life could have been like if he did not have to support his parents and other family members. He had worked harder than most in school, had acquired the skills necessary for a successful carpentry business, yet remained in a mud and thatch roof no bigger than my American bedroom.
My conversation with Malecki that day truly made me stop and think. First, about how I had mistaken his desire to befriend me & teach me his trade, with his inability to run a business. What I perceived as laziness was actually a cultural difference. While in the U.S. business transpires quickly and efficiently, Malawians live life at a much slower pace, entrusting higher value on the formation of relationships. Even though this pace has been frustrating at times, I’m starting to appreciate its importance. Talking to and working with Malecki was so much more valuable to me than simply exchanging goods. I felt lucky to forge a new friendship and listen to his story.
The second, less uplifting topic I thought about yesterday was the overwhelming, crushing weight of poverty. Of course, I see malnourished mothers, children with protruding bellies and men dressed in rags everyday, but as with most issues, (at least for me), listening to personal stories makes it all so much more real. My conversation with Malecki about his vain struggle to break the cycle of poverty in his family made me look hard at the landscape around me and consider the great difficulties of development work. While initially reflecting upon my day, everything seemed to be related back to income. I asked myself: how can Malecki make a better life for his children if he must simultaneously provide for his parents? How can a Malawian youth get an education if their family can’t afford the school fees? How can I teach families to boil their water to prevent diarrhea if they don’t have funds to spend on extra firewood? All of these questions circulated in my head as I began to comprehend just how difficult my work here might be. There seemed to be countless ways in which a person’s financial status could dictate their health, education, livelihood, etc. Clearly, Malecki is a hardworking, intelligent man but his family’s history with poverty has held him back from advancement.
While yesterday I spent brooding over the great hardship and unfairness that is life in Malawi, today I have been more positive, reminding myself that every effort made towards change counts. As one of our trainers in Kasungu reminded us as we prepared to leave for site, “every little achievement is still an achievement.” Pang’ono pang’ono. While our work is not meant to target the economic landscapes of our villages, I’m hoping that the skills and knowledge that we transfer to our community members will have an effect, whether small or large. If we can empower individuals with knowledge and build capacity, we can make a change.